Post 49: Perennial Crisis: The Aftermath of 1888

Christianity is “a salvation religion” with Jesus Christ and the gracious salvation He offers as its prime focus. Seventh-day Adventism, as a denominated part of Christianity, seeks “the truth as it is in Jesus.” In its official literature, Adventism identifies itself with the threefold message of Revelation 14 that ripens earth’s harvest for the heavenly sickle. According to Ellen White’s analysis, “justification by faith” is “the third angel’s message in verity.”

During its first four decades, Adventism well demonstrated its nature as “a salvation religion” but it failed to convince either its world or most of its members that the gracious salvation Jesus Christ offers was its central focus. Is justification by faith the root of salvation that bears the fruit of loving obedience? Or is “the way of life” based on keeping the sacred law of God so faithfully that salvation is measured by human performance? Providentially, the 1888 General Conference confronted us with a coherent answer to such questions by its fresh emphasis on Jesus Christ and salvation by grace through faith in Him. To quote Ellen White, again:

The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family. All power is given into His hands, that He may dispense rich gifts unto men, imparting the priceless gift of His own righteousness to the helpless human agent. This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.

Now, that is merely one paragraph from four weighty volumes conveying Ellen White’s reflections on the momentous General Conference session at Minneapolis (see “The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials: Letters, Manuscripts, Articles, and Sermons Relating to the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference,” 1987). It is, however, an apt intimation of the content of the larger whole: the “most precious message” of 1888, “the message that God commanded to be given to the world.”

What Went Wrong, and Why?

During the past 124 years, most of those who have studied the history of the Righteousness by Faith controversy in Adventism have concluded that the immense possibilities of this message were never realised, at least during the lifetimes of the people who participated in the 1888 session. What went so wrong? Why did it turn out that way?

First of all, instead of glad acceptance there was much conflict. During a dispute near the birth of Christianity, according to Acts 6: 15, “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw his face was like the face of an angel” (NIV). However, few of us have angelic faces in the midst of a doctrinal controversy. Former soldier Alonzo Trevier Jones didn’t. Ellet Joseph Waggoner was better able to keep his eyes on Scripture and avoid personality issues. But both Jones and Waggoner were often mimicked, ridiculed, or damned with faint praise. Indeed, “the spirit of Minneapolis” was set to become a famous Adventist descriptor for a negative experience. The conflict proved able to obscure “justification through faith in the Surety” so fully that even the church’s leaders denied that crucial teaching was the real issue.

Looking back, it is clear that a number of important issues surfaced in Adventism during the 1880s and beyond: the need for a clear focus on the Word of God as the basis of all the church’s teachings; the challenge to aqequatelyinterpret biblical apocalyptic; the identity of the law in Galatians; the essentiality of a coherent response to “new light” in relation to the identity and content of Adventist landmarks; the necessity for a mature understanding of the inspiration and authority of Ellen White. Singly or together these issues cried out for a better understanding of both continuity and change in Adventist doctrine. The tragedy of the time is unmistakable: a cluster of important issues dominated the centre of the Adventist stage, keeping the most crucial issue waiting in the wings.

In the final article of this five-part series we will note that from 1950 to 1980 the Seventh-day Adventist Church engaged in thirty-years of war over 1888, with disastrous consequences. In part, a major Bible conference (1952) was a first official response, but that merely reiterated “Our Firm Foundation” rather than dealing with the real issues. Close to the middle of the thirty-year struggle, a forthright book by A.V. Olson was published to defend the church, entitled Through Crisis to Victory, 1888-1901 (1966). The church acknowledged in the publication of this book that there was a crisis. That was a very important step. The church also admitted the crisis was unresolved for years, up to thirteen years. Probably Olson did not choose and was not happy with the title given to his book, nor did he deem the evidence supported the idea that the conflict led to “victory” after a mere thirteen years. Indeed, fifteen years after its first publication, Olson’s book was republished with a more apt title, one that better mirrored its content: Thirteen Crisis Years, 1888-1901 (1981). By then the church was recognising the crisis as a continuing one. In no way was anything like a consummate “victory” achieved by 1901.

Another of the major reasons why the 1888 message was discounted is also very apparent: Jones and Waggoner were fallible human beings. Their mannerisms could be flawed, as was their way of speaking. They could react with vitriol that seemed rather like that of their accusers. They were not immune from over-statement, or even false doctrine. Both of them lost their membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Waggoner’s marriage succumbed as well; in fact, he divorced his wife and married a younger woman. Jones moved from criticism of his brethren to criticism of Ellen White when her prophetic ministry failed to meet his unrealistic expectations. Jones came to be possessed by a grand vision of perfectionism and nurtured a distorted understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit. At least some of the loyalists of the Advent Movement felt vindicated, fully, when both Jones and Waggoner “left the truth.” Now these earnest defenders of the landmarks could discredit the message of 1888 because of the “fall” of the messengers.

A third reason was, amongst others, also important: the church was finding success in its mission, going into “all the world,” developing schools, colleges and sanitaria as far away as Africa and Australia. The challenges of the ongoing present and the promising future seemed far more important than tarrying to understand former events. It was easy to forget the way the Lord had led and taught the church in the past, but that neglect would produce a baleful harvest. In hindsight, it is clear that the church’s 1888 experience was so painful that it was not discussed adequately, let alone understood fully and applied coherently. That is ever the way some of us deal with bereavement experiences: we cope by being silent. The pain seems too real to talk about the hurtful event. Denial is a mechanism that helps us cope.

But there was at least one leader who felt the 1888 story must be told clearly and understood fully. He would receive considerable support in making his bold attempt.

Daniells to the Rescue

Arthur Grosvenor Daniells (1858-1935) is the longest-serving General Conference president in Adventist history. He worked closely with Ellen White and her son, William, during the 1890s in Australia and New Zealand. Elected to lead the world church at the 1901 world session, Daniells steadied the Adventist ship through and beyond the turbulence caused by Ellen White’s aging and death in 1915. In 1919 he attempted to share with selected leaders some of what he knew about the prophetic ministry of Ellen White, but the tide was turning against effective understanding in favour of a narrow Fundamentalism. Men like Prescott, Lacey, Daniells and William White needed to be heard fully by the church because of the way in which they understood Ellen White’s life and writings from direct personal experience. They knew that prophets are human, as all God’s people are, but that God uses the ministry of prophets uniquely, despite their humanness. They recognised the strength of Ellen White’s clear statements about Seventh-day Adventist faith as “advancing,” meaning it is “our duty to walk in the increasing light.”

But the Fundamentalist forces were too strong. Daniells was threatened during and after the 1919 discussions; he was dismissed from presidential leadership in 1922. Significant others like him were little understood, often maligned and marginalised. Note, for instance, the life experience and reputation of W.W. Prescott, until Gilbert Valentine’s books (1992, 2005) effected Prescott’s rehabilitation. Even the transcripts of the fruitful 1919 discussions would become so secret that probably no Adventist leader even knew they existed in 1970, when conflict over Ellen White’s prophetic ministry began to cry out for historical understanding. However, in the providence of God, the 1919 transcripts were “discovered” as the church began to better organise its headquarters archive, implementing crucial decisions made at the world headquarters in 1972. Finally, late in the 1970s, the 1919 transcripts were published by an independent journal, Spectrum. Now they can be read anywhere in the world by pressing a few computer buttons.

Daniells learned the sad lesson of 1919 so thoroughly that thereafter he said little of significance about his fuller understanding of Ellen White’s life and writings. Certainly his book The Abiding Gift of Prophecy (1936), completed during his last illness, fails to address the hard questions. But there are other indicators that offer insights into Daniells’ mind. While it is apparent that he decided it was too difficult to help the church understand the role of Ellen White in a way that encompassed all the available evidence, he determined to clarify a matter of crucial importance: the General Conference of 1888. He deemed it was possible to address the central message of that epochal event in a constructive way.

As the 1920s wore on with so many Adventists lurching toward shelter in the Fundamentalist camp, it seemed to Daniells that the best way to address the church’s need was through its ministers. Therefore, he moved his focus from his appointed work as General Conference secretary toward a newer venture, The Ministerial Association and the fostering of ministerial institutes and a magazine for ministers, entitled Ministry. The time would come when Daniells would lay the heavy burden of understanding 1888 on the shoulders of a younger man, LeRoy Edwin Froom. But first Daniells wrote his own book, Christ Our Righteousness: A Study of the Principles of Righteousness by Faith as Set Forth in the Word of God and the Writings of the Spirit of Prophecy (1926).

A Wistful Book Indeed!

 As I drafted these lines, I had open before me a much-marked copy of Christ Our Righteousness. I bought Daniells’ book, second hand, and signed my name on its flyleaf, along with the date that I acquired it, fifty-six years ago. Also, on the flyleaf I wrote, “Beginning of the light, page 76,” along with a sequence of page numbers: 10, 35, 55, 58, 79, 86. (Of course, the page numbers are different in other editions; for instance, page 76 in my 1926 edition is page 56 in the 1941 edition.)

What do those pages say, in the context of Daniells’ book? They impressed me all those years ago, the year after I came to know a fellow student at Avondale College, Robert Daniel Brinsmead. Bob would start to get me (and countless others) interested in the General Conference of 1888. He would help me begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of the various positions Adventists adopted in relation to that epochal event. While Bob may not now be interested in the interpretation relating to 1888 that he advocated from 1958 to 1970, or the contrasting formulation that he adopted during the next decade, Adventists need to give him credit for raising important issues. A host of studies have, since those turbulent years, analysed the data, thoroughly. The issues are now so plain that there is no need to fight about them. During their difficult “Thirty Years War” most Adventists didn’t have the information that they needed, so desperately, in order to make coherent decisions. Such controversy feeds on inadequate information and even more especially, disinformation. Thank God, the situation is not like that in 2012.

As a Theology student at Avondale College from 1954 to 1957 I received a few glimmerings of light about 1888. My engagement with the issues in pastoral- evangelism after 1958 would offer me a steep learning curve in relation to salvation by grace through faith and how that understanding illumines the precious significance of our Adventist landmarks. The Daniells book was one of the helpful resources I cherished during the 1960s, even though it wasn’t until the next decade that many things started to become clear, not least because the church was organising its archival resources and making them more accessible. But back to Daniells’ quote on page 76:

The time of test is just upon us, for the loud cry of the third angel has already begun in the revelation of the righteousness of Christ, the sin-pardoning Redeemer. This is the beginning of the light of the angel whose glory shall fill the whole earth.

Again, we must emphasise that this is only one of many arresting quotes that Daniells makes from the writings of Ellen White. Fifty years ago these words from the Review and Herald of 1892 were helping to feed the Adventist longing to see Revelation 18:1 fulfilled: planet earth so lightened with the glory of God that Jesus could come and reap the ripened harvest.

Daniells Analyses the Evidence

In the view of A.G. Daniells, did the church experience the revival and reformation that the 1888 message promised? Isolated sentences always must be read in their context, of course, but there are many examples of a wistful tone in Daniells’ book.

In our blindness and dullness of heart, we have wandered far out of the way, and for many years have been failing to appropriate this sublime truth (page 10).

To this day, many of those who heard the message when it came are deeply interested in it and concerned regarding it. All these long years they have held a firm conviction, and cherished a fond hope, that someday this message would be given great prominence among us, and that it would do the cleansing, regenerating work in the church which they believed it was sent by the Lord to accomplish (page 35; cf. page 55, 58).

Our waiting for the fulfillment has been anxious and long. The fulfillment will be witnessed by someone. Why may we not see it and be in it? (page 79).

O that we had all listened as we should to both warning and appeal as they came to us in the seemingly strange, yet impressive way at the Conference of 1888! What uncertainty would have been removed, what wanderings and defeats and losses would have been prevented! What light and blessing and triumph and progress would have come to us! But thanks be unto Him who loves us with an everlasting love, it is not too late even now to respond with the whole heart to both warning and appeal, and receive the great benefits provided (page 86).

Ready for the 1950s?

My purpose in this series of articles is to invite you, the reader, to consider again the heart of Seventh-day Adventism: the message of salvation that centres in Jesus Christ our Substitute and Surety. Adventist landmarks are precious only because of the way they point to our Creator, High Priest, Communicator, Lifegiver and Consummator. Now, I am concerned lest these brief excursions into the Adventist past are so flimsy that they may leave misunderstandings in your mind. Hence, later I will say more about the fuller historical accounts that are available, some of which are alluded to in these articles. The final article of this five-part series will be both sadder and more hopeful than the first four. The “moral” is clear: next in importance to our study of God’s Word is consideration of the “the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” 

Arthur Patrick, 15 March 2012